Paula SchneiderI am reading a book by Stephen Levine entitled, “Who Dies?” and before starting it, I did a little research on Mr. Levine by checking his bio on Wikipedia. What follows is part of that bio: “Although Stephen acknowledges that our experience of grief is perhaps at its most intense when a loved one dies, he also draws our attention to grief’s more subtle incarnations. ‘Our ordinary, everyday grief accumulates as a response to the burdens of disappointments and disillusionment, and the loss of trust and confidence that follows the increasingly less satisfactory arc of our lives.’ In order to avoid feeling this grief, we armor our hearts, which leads to a gradual deadening of our experience of the world. When a loved one dies, or indeed when our own death approaches, the intensity of the loss often renders our defenses ineffective and we are swept up by a deluge of griefs, both old and new.”

When I read this, I immediately thought of my father who made his transition in April. In the months prior to his final illness, he and I talked on the phone at least weekly and sometimes more frequently. He had a habit of calling me on Friday of each week, and I finally realized that he was so dreading a boring weekend that he just needed to talk. Overall, weekend boredom aside, he was very lonely and with the passing months, his affect became ever flatter. He denied depression, but he did admit that the things in his life that he previously enjoyed doing now held no allure for him.

In reading Stephen’s mostly true but admittedly depressing observations, I began to think of ways we might work to prevent life from ever so gradually losing its luster. In my hospice work, I saw evidence of this happening everywhere. I wrote an article in the Nevada Appeal once called, “Keeping Your Plate Clean,” where I advised people to not wait until the end to try to clear up misunderstandings with loved ones. Don’t wait to tell them you love them and appreciate them. Tell them the four things that matter most (the title of a book by Dr. Ira Byock): “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.” Dr. Byock says the fifth is, “Goodbye.”

While I think that keeping your plate clean certainly helps keep some spiritual pain at bay as one ages, I do think that the more meaningful work goes much deeper. In my mind, it’s like mining for diamonds. We must go very deep into our feelings and thoughts, bring even the uncomfortable ones up to the surface, to the light, and begin a lifelong process of changing lumps of coal into diamonds.

These are difficult choices to make, and I believe that for the most part they must be done while we are relatively young (40 now seems young to me) and healthy. They require daily commitment in order to identify thoughts of fear, lack, and judgment. These thoughts are sneaky, and can take many forms. An old Unity poem, The Heart’s Garden, by Katherine Merrill, says this beautifully:

The heart is a garden

            Where thought flowers grow;

The thoughts that we think

            Are the seeds that we sow.

 

Every kind, loving thought

            Bears a kind, loving deed;

While a thought that is selfish

Is just like a weed.

 

We must watch what we think,

            Each minute, all day;

And pull out the weed thoughts

            And throw them away.

 

And plant loving seed thoughts

            So thick in a row

That there will not be room

            For weed thoughts to grow.

 

So my invitation to readers is to keep your plate clean, constantly work with your judgements and fears to transform them into diamonds (and pearls of wisdom), and memorize Katherine’s poem so it stays close to you at all times.